Space Logistics Gets DARPA RSGS Contract

Space Logistics Gets DARPA RSGS Contract

After successfully docking its Mission Extension Vehicle-1 (MEV-1) with the Intelsat 901 communication satellite, Northrop Grumman’s Space Logistics subsidiary scored a contract with DARPA today to take satellite servicing to the next level.  They will partner on the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program, with Space Logistics replacing Maxar Technologies, which withdrew last year.

In announcing the MEV-1/Intelsat 901 docking last week, Space Logistics President Tom Wilson, who is also Northrop Grumman’s Vice President for Space Systems, mentioned the company’s future plans to build a Mission Robotic Vehicle (MRV) with robotic arms that would be used to install Mission Extension Pods — fuel pods — on satellites already in orbit to extend their lifetimes. That apparently was a reference to this agreement with DARPA, though the RSGS system has broader applications.

The RSGS payload was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory and consists of two dexterous robotic manipulator arms plus tools and sensors.  In a statement today, Wilson said the “new robotics technology on this mission advances our vision to build a fleet of vehicles that provide customers with a variety of options to select the type of life-extension or in-orbit repairs they need.”  Michael Leahy, Director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, added it will pave the way for routine “inspection, repair, life extension and improvement” of satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

Illustration of RSGS with its robotic arms servicing another satellite. Credit: DARPA

The agreement is a public-private partnership.  DARPA provides the NRL-developed payload, while Space Logistics provides the spacecraft, launch, and mission operations.  In return, Space Logistics will be able to offer services to government and private sector customers. The program will be implemented in two phases: a six-month period to assess joint program interfaces and business case, followed by execution of the flight program.

DARPA initiated the RSGS program in 2016 and chose Space Systems Loral, part of Maxar Technologies, as its commercial partner in 2017.  Space Logistics, then a subsidiary of Orbital ATK, unsuccessfully protested the award on the basis that it constituted unfair government competition since it was developing its own satellite servicing technologies. Orbital ATK and Space Logistics were later acquired by Northrop Grumman.

In January 2019, however, Maxar made a business decision to exit the satellite servicing business and withdraw from RSGS, opening the door for this new partnership.

In a statement today, DARPA’s RSGS program manager Joseph Parrish said the NRL payload passed its Critical Design Review in 2019 and launch is targeted for 2023.  “RSGS would be the first concrete step toward a transformed space architecture with revolutionary capabilities.”

NASA has its own satellite servicing development program, Restore-L, that will demonstrate the ability to refuel a satellite, Landsat 7, in low Earth orbit.  Maxar is building the spacecraft for that program.

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